Former Newcastle United and Swindon Town player, Alan O’Brien, says he wishes he’d received better support and advice as an injury-ravaged player.
But it’s something the PFA member is trying to set right in the next chapter of his career - by truly looking after his customers as a vehicle broker in the motor industry.
Dublin-born Alan, now 37, won admirers as a teenaged, left-footed winger, impressing coaches with his pace and earning a contract at high-flying Newcastle United.
He made his Premier League Debut in 2006 and represented the Republic of Ireland five times. The star even faced-off against Lionel Messi’s Barcelona during a pre-season friendly while representing Hibernian.
And one of Alan’s most memorable spells came as he joined a Swindon Town side - which boasted in-form strikers Charlie Austin and Billy Paynter - which reached the League One play-off final in 2010.
Yet a succession of hamstring injuries ultimately led to Alan, as he puts it, ‘falling out of love with the game’.
Looking back now, Alan laments the poor advice he received and wishes he’d had the player welfare backing that modern professionals enjoy.
But Alan, now a Swindon-based appointed representative of PFA partner Select Car Leasing - the UK’s largest independent specialists for car and van leasing - is on a mission to redress the balance.
He reveals: “When you play football, it’s easy for others to take advantage of you because you take people at face value. But for a lot of the time, people won’t have your best interests at heart. It’s something that never sat right with me.
“Which is why my big motivation now with Select Car Leasing is to look after people properly and to have the customer for life, rather than taking advantage of them for a quick sale. It’s about honesty and integrity.
“And working with Select, I’m completely focused on setting new targets and having something to aim for in terms of growing the business.”
Speaking about football player welfare in general, Alan adds: “In football, you can be forgotten about in just a couple of weeks. That’s how harsh the game is. The rewards are massive but it’s a cut-throat world. In my last game for the Republic of Ireland, against the USA, the commentators described me as ‘man of the match’ - yet I never got a call-up again.
“Player welfare has come on leaps and bounds since I played - but it really needed to, and there’s definitely still room for improvement. Other professions would not treat their staff the way footballers were treated. Yet in football, being sent to train with the under 23s, or on your own, is perfectly acceptable.
“All of us are human, with feelings and emotions. We’re not robots. And if you’re playing poorly, there’s no-one else who feels it more than yourself. Fans might get on your back and think you don’t care, but you really do.
“Of course, social media has had a massive effect, and the things that are written on there are just not acceptable. You read things about yourself on Twitter, or on football forums, and you start to really doubt yourself. I went from performing really well for my national team to feeling like I couldn’t kick a ball.
“And when I look back on it now, I feel like I could have had better support as a young man. You need an arm around you, you need your confidence building back up, but on a lot of occasions, I never received that support.”
Like a lot of kids growing up in Dublin, Alan initially played both Gaelic football and soccer. His first football team, aged ten, was historic Cabinteely F.C.
Scouts soon arrived to see just how rapid he was down the wing. And he explains: “I was quick - really quick. But my pace was ultimately part of my downfall, as my hamstrings and lower back suffered because of it.”
By the mid Noughties, big clubs assembled to sign him up, including Arsenal, Aston Villa, Manchester City and Leeds United.
But Alan was ultimately persuaded to join Newcastle because the youth coach at the time was Alan Irvine, a former Crystal Palace great who, like Alan, had been a winger.
Alan reveals: “Irvine had brought Damian Duff through the footballing ranks and Newcastle, at the time, were really expanding their academy. I went with my parents aged 15, met manager Bobby Robson, and signed for them. It was surreal.
“I remember doing a fitness test and being sick, thinking, ‘How is this possible? Even the goalkeepers are fitter than me!’. It was a huge learning curve. I was so far off the pace.”
A Premier League debut came against Fulham in January 2006 and he got his first international cap, against the Netherlands, in the same year.
But his career ultimately hit a crossroads - should he stay at Newcastle and force his way into the first team, or look for regular matches elsewhere..?
He explains: “I took advice from someone different - and it’s now something I think about all the time, questioning what might have been. I should have listened to my original adviser and stayed at Newcastle. In my head, I couldn’t see myself getting ahead of Damian Duff, a really strong left-winger.
“I moved to Hibs, for less money than Newcastle were offering me… and I wasn’t the same player after getting injured in pre-season. I took some heavy hits, which is part and parcel of Scottish football, and suffered an undiagnosed fracture in my right ankle. I couldn’t run properly and my form really suffered. It put me on the back foot, I lost my confidence, and I ended up not wanting to be there.”
Having played well in a crunch, televised match between Hibs and fierce Edinburgh rivals Hearts, Swindon Town beckoned for Alan in 2009. And he really enjoyed his time there - so much so he still calls the place home, as he heads-up the Select Car Leasing Swindon Office.
Alan says: “Danny Wilson was a brilliant manager, there wasn’t a bad guy in the dressing room, and I loved being at Swindon. There was a lot of ability throughout the squad and we’re all good friends now.”
Alan’s time at Swindon also coincided with an horrific tear in his hamstring that kept him out of the team for six months. It was so bad he could barely walk. Yet he recovered in time to play the League One play-off semi final against Charlton, and also came on as a sub in the Final, which Swindon ultimately lost against Millwall.
But injury still haunted Alan, and he candidly admits that playing became a ‘burden’ as he ‘wished the games away’.
He adds: “I was getting a lot of grief. I did my hamstring three more times and the tears were so bad that I struggled to continue. But football is all I knew. I didn’t have any experience in any other profession. I just had to keep going.”
And while he continued to play for some non-league sides until 2018, his professional League career came to an end in 2012 having been released by Yeovil Town.
What Alan fell back on after that point was his love of cars - and he now provides vehicles to a host of footballing stars as well as those from all walks of life. In 2020, Alan officially became part of the Select Car Leasing family.
While Alan currently drives an all-electric Tesla Model Y, there’s a side project that’s perhaps even more exciting for him…
He laughs: “I’m restoring a Renault 5 GT Turbo from 1990 which I’ve been working on for a couple of years. It’s a lovely, one-owner car that I can’t wait to return to the road. And as my career proves, once a petrolhead, always a petrolhead!”